Tholpavaikoothu (leather puppetry) has passed the point of staging tales from Indian mythology alone. “Traditionally we present stories from the Mahabharata or Ramayana, but in the present situation, we are required to perform to create social awareness on subjects like road safety, environmental issues and water scarcity”, says S. Nathamani, a Tholpavaikoothu artiste.
Nathamani is a member of the fifth generation in his family practicing shadow puppetry.
The art, which was languishing in Chennai, has found news ways to survive -- through Cinema, television, social awareness programmes and even weddings!
“It started during the rule of Raja Raja Cholan, [a medieval South Indian king] as a way to entertain warriors”, says Nathamani, when asked about the origins of Tholpavaikoothu. There are four types of puppets, he explains - “glove puppets, rod puppets, shadow puppets and string puppets. It takes at least 25 days and maybe even months to make just one puppet. Each one is made to suit the story”, he adds.
Modernisation and alternative modes of entertainment hampered the development of this art form. “During the days when my grandfather performed, there would be a team of 20 people to perform different tasks during a performance”, says Nathamani. Now, five people have to do the task of 20, performing music and mimicry, and handling several puppets at once.
Nathamani recalls a time before television when people used to buy tickets for a Tholpavaikoothu performance paying a rupee, or even 50 paise. “Everything has changed; the koothu is declining; there were times when we could manage if shows didn't run properly, as we also did farming, and could rely on that for support. But now, both are not doing well”, he rues.
But the team is innovating for survival - it reaches out to schools and has performed in movies like Dasavatharam.
According to Nathamani, “The government did support us earlier, but now nothing is being done; my father is not getting his pension either. We support each other.” He runs a business to supplement his income, but Nathamani isn't giving up on puppetry. “My son just turned one. Soon, I will begin teaching him our family tradition; the koothu which my grandfather taught will be passed on to my son”, says Nathamani proudly.